I just can’t get over this one specific image from Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the lush and brazen superhero epic that finally hit HBO Max on Thursday, in all its grimly indulgent four-hour-plus glory, after a baffling five-year journey from superfan fever dream to viral Streaming Wars behemoth. (That arc, at this point, would actually take me four hours to explain.) This single frame from the movie—the miniseries? the goth-rock opera? the manifesto? the lifestyle?—encapsulates for me how bombastic, how surreal, how singularly extraordinary this whole glorious bonkers saga has become, and captures both the audacity of Snyder’s vision and the fearsome vehemence with which the director’s Extremely Online fan base fought to defend it. Not since Michelle Pfeiffer whipped off all those mannequin heads in one take in 1992’s Batman Returns has a blockbuster comic book movie offered us such a breathtaking sight. Zack Snyder has done it. He has justified, in an instant, the half-decade of proselytizing toil the Snyderverse unflinchingly endured on his behalf. He has bent the very arc of history. He has shocked the world. And here, at long last, is the shot that did it:
OK, sorry, so obviously this is a screenshot of the Rotten Tomatoes score for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but admit it: This is astounding. A Zack Snyder film that critics enjoyed, or at least grudgingly appreciated. The San Francisco Chronicle conceded that “it may not be a great film, but it has the madness, strangeness, and obsessiveness of a real work of art.” Indiewire granted that Snyder’s “maximalist approach may repel as many people as it delights, but certainly delivers a genuine cinema of attraction for those who demanded it in the first place.” Vulture concluded that “the Snyder Cut has its share of problems—when you get the best of Snyder, you also get the worst—but it’s an undeniably passionate and moving work. It earns its self-importance.” NPR: “It actually succeeds.” Vanity Fair: “intermittently rewarding.” The Jewish Chronicle: “surprisingly enjoyable.” Qualified praise: It’s still praise.
“Am I a provocateur?” Snyder mused during a lengthy New York Times interview last week. “A little bit. Is my job to make some pop-culture piece of candy that you eat and forget about the next day? Nah. I would rather [expletive] you up in a movie than make it nice and pretty for everybody.” Whether you enjoyed it with friends or braved it solo, you can say what you will about the long-threatened Snyder Cut of 2017’s mercilessly derided Justice League, and qualify any praise you might bestow all you want, but this film, this victory lap, this unparalleled content spectacular has for sure [expletive]-ed up the world. Respect is due, and respect, even if in teeth-gritting trace amounts, is finally being given. (The official NYT review declared it “the cinematic equivalent of a four-hour-long video-game cut scene.” Some people like those! I’m counting it!)
NOT A SPOILER— jason c. (@netw3rk) March 18, 2021
1) the snyder cut is good!
2) this is the funniest single image in a comic book movie pic.twitter.com/bMTFO8evoc
I agree with half of this tweet; I’m honestly not sure which half. Two personal caveats here. I wrote about the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement at great length back in 2019, if you need this whole chaotic situation summarized, which at this point is doubtful, which is itself remarkable. (“Quixotic” is my version of faint praise, I guess.) Also, I am among those small-minded, uncomprehending critics who really hated both 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder’s two prior D.C. Comics Extended Universe–launching joints, both typified by their gunmetal-gray color palettes, their comically grim self-seriousness, their indifference to mass civilian casualties (enough people died in Man of Steel for both movies), and their punishing lengths. (All I will say about any of that now is that “Batman V Superman Is V Bad” is a very funny headline.)
Anyway, the Slo-Mo Hot Dog Scene (hereafter the S-MHDS) in Zack Snyder’s Justice League is fuckin’ hilarious. To attempt to summarize this four-hour-plus behemoth in terms of plot or character development or movie-to-movie narrative coherence is to miss the point of its existence entirely. No, this Justice League is an ungodly long and yet just long enough series of vibes, of vignettes, of lugubrious music videos, of agonized portraits of grief, of elaborate screen savers, of morose character studies. Amy Adams, as Lois Lane, grimly ordering coffee to a Nick Cave song; Jason Momoa, as Aquaman, grimly chugging whiskey to a different Nick Cave song.
The S-MHDS arrives more than an hour into our journey (we’re already on Part 3), and introduces us to pretty much the sole character (Ezra Miller as the Flash) meant to serve as comic relief. For that matter, it’s pretty much the sole extended scene that is meant to be funny on purpose, and even this scene is soundtracked by an extra-lugubrious cover of the morose Tim Buckley jam “Song to the Siren,” but it is still, as previously mentioned, fuckin’ hilarious. Legit, unqualified LOLs. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is dominated by the same unrelenting gray color palette as Snyder’s previous DCU movies, a comically grim self-seriousness, and an extra-punishing length, but the Flash’s one lovelorn burst of slo-mo self-pity—the pretty girl, the car wreck, the finger-smashed glass, the time-stopping reverie, the explosion, the hot dog plucked from the air as though a daisy in a verdant field—is just the jolt of mostly on-purpose goofiness Snyder needed, or at least we needed, to really tie the room together. By this point—barely a quarter of the way through this goddamn thing—you are attuned to the Snyder Cut’s rhythm, or its brash resistance to any consistent rhythm whatsoever. You bought the ticket. You’re taking the ride. And quite possibly, you’re (intermittently!) enjoying it.
A recap of how we got here: Snyder stepped away from the movie after his daughter Autumn died by suicide late in the production. Warner Bros. then hired Joss Whedon to finish the movie, and Whedon further took this opportunity to turn a grim and challenging DCEU film into a whimsical and crowd-pleasing Marvel Cinematic Universe film, and that version came out in 2017 and was two hours long and everyone hated it. (The Flash’s most memorable scene back then was when he face-planted onto Wonder Woman’s chest, a supremely icky and dumb gag Gal Gadot reportedly refused to shoot.) The knock on most MCU movies, as globe-dominatingly successful as they might be, is that everyone is joking all the time, all quips and whimsy and comic relief so exhausting that you almost long for, I suppose, tragic relief. (Enter Thanos, I guess.) That the Flash, now, is the sole MCU-type character (twee babbling, coy one-liners) in this flagrantly DCEU-ass four-hour movie only heightens the contrast between these two universes and underscores what Snyder’s been going for all this time, which is, as aforementioned by the man himself, to [expletive] you up.
Now, with respect to Wonder Woman (still wooden as hell, but better suited in her wooden-ness to an environment this ostentatiously pompous), Snyder’s preferred character is clearly a guy named Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a half-dead and super-pissed super-hacker monstrosity with few comic-relief impulses and paralyzing daddy issues that this new Justice League explores at just-short-of-punishing length. Fisher’s role was mercilessly slashed in the original movie; in 2020 he tweeted that Whedon’s “on-set treatment of the cast and crew of Justice League was gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable.” (The Snyder Cut saga is feeding into an ongoing backlash against Whedon’s on-set behavior in general.) There are roughly 10,000 “What’s different in the new Justice League?” articles on the internet right now (the NYT did one!), but the half hour or so Snyder spends detailing the tragic Shakespearean backstory of Cyborg is really all you need to know about those differences. That and the whole thing now looks, like, 50 times gloomier.
But what really differentiates—and ultimately benefits—Zack Snyder’s Justice League is its timing. Due to COVID-19, the past year has been markedly light on blockbuster superhero content—mercifully light, even, maybe. All that needs to be said about this new movie’s many loud and garish and confusing and bone-crushing fight scenes is that any one of them is better than anything that happens during December’s relentlessly stupid Wonder Woman 1984. (Reasonable people can disagree.) As for Marvel, I enjoyed WandaVision very much—its suspiciously Snyder-like grief and pathos especially—but that was a TV show that ideally required you to watch fuckin’ literally 23 other movies first, and it also helped if you’d read a ton of comics or at least watched the 13 X-Men movies also, and the hell with it.
As a consequence, my single favorite thing about the Snyder Cut is its total incoherence, in terms of narrative, in terms of 500-shades-of-gray tone, in terms of timelines internal or external. We spend like two hours watching Aquaman gruffly refuse the call to be a true superhero more than two years after the stand-alone movie about Aquaman becoming a true superhero grossed a billion dollars. We watch Ben Affleck as Batman, suspiciously milling about the edges of the ZSJL narrative but rarely at its center due to (presumably) actor availability and the merciless march of time, even though the DCEU has long since announced a triple-Batman multiverse. We get Jared Leto’s insufferable take on the Joker a full year after another guy won an Oscar for playing the Joker.
As for Henry Cavill’s Superman, at least we don’t have to deal with that stupid CGI’d-off mustache that plagued the original Justice League. This new movie is so blatantly Frankensteined together—with no easy way of knowing what was shot when, to what degree of, uh, finishedness—that you have no choice but to turn off the part of your brain now solely devoted to grasping corporate-superhero synergy and continuity. This Justice League, like the very concept of justice itself, is unapologetically random. Zack Snyder has zero chill in a way that forces the viewer to adopt Maximum Chill.
Furthermore, what all those qualified-rave reviews of Zack Snyder’s Justice League are really acknowledging—and at least faintly praising—is the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement itself. It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking about how a whole lot of people really really really really wanted this movie. They fought for it, quite possibly harder than you yourself have ever fought for anything in your whole life. They fought Warners. They fought Joss Whedon. They fought a patronizing media. They fought the justifiable apprehension and cynicism with which the world approaches anything involving people arguing online about comic book movies. They chartered planes to fly banners. They raised a quarter of a million dollars for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And they hashtagged their way to total, undeniable victory. This is the shockingly rare new(-ish) movie on a blockbuster streaming service that you can point at and say, for certain, Somebody Asked for This.
The highest compliment I personally can pay this movie is that I figured I’d have to parcel it out over a whole weekend, but I ended up watching the whole thing in a day, not because I wanted to find out how it would end—because who knows, or cares—but because I wanted to see what else might happen. If you think I’m even gonna Google the words “Martian Manhunter,” you are out of your goddamn mind, but I absolutely love that your reward after four hours is to watch a random guy say the random words “Some have called me the Martian Manhunter.” Indeed, the final half hour of Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a riotously bleak Batman plus Joker vs. Evil Superman vignette that sketches out the next two movies Snyder would’ve made if none of this calamity had ever happened in the first place. What a farce. What a flex. You don’t like it, fine. But fear it, or at least respect it. We hapless critics can only throw up our hands in confusion and amazement and defeat. And in 2021, that sure beats getting Two Thumbs Up.